Connect to share and comment

Venezuela businesses deal with power cuts

How are Venezuelan businesses coping with the rolling blackouts?

Caracas blackout
Unlit buildings during a partial blackout in Caracas, Jan. 13, 2010. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

MERIDA, Venezuela — Who would want to eat ice cream that tastes of smoked trout, hamburger and hotdog, or fried duck?

Apparently tourists from all over the world. At the Coromoto Ice Cream Parlor, hundreds of bank notes from various countries are pinned to a notice board — a testament to this local institution’s popularity.

Visitors flock here to sample some of the 860 flavors that have won the Coromoto a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the ice cream vendor with the greatest variety of flavors. Others simply marvel at the range of Coromoto’s imagination.

Quite a few try the more unusual fare, said manager Jose Ramirez. “We have ice creams made from prawns, squid, oysters, every kind of fish — people like them.”

But while this bustling business has little difficulty in attracting customers, it has had to contend with power cuts that have left its deep freezers turned off for up to three hours each day.

Venezuela is undergoing an electricity crisis caused by what critics of the government say is chronic underinvestment in the sector and exacerbated by a drought that has only recently abated. Venezuela's economy contracted 5.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009. Analysts predict electricity rationing will have a further impact on industry and small businesses this year.

Since late last year, the government has been forced to impose power-rationing schemes. Merida state has been one of the worst affected areas.

In the corner of the ice cream parlor stands a small electricity generator that Ramirez says he uses for lighting the shop during the blackouts.

Because the ice cream is so tightly packed it takes a few hours before it begins to melt, said Ramirez, so he does not use the generator to power the freezers, which would be costly. “If the power cuts were to last more than three or four hours it would be a problem.”

Other businesses have not been so lucky. At the Divine Child butcher’s, Eliana Sanchez says she cannot afford the cost of a generator to keep her goods from going off. She complains that she has had to throw out easily perishable goods such as chicken and fish.

“I work with a type of product that needs constant refrigeration,” she said.

Straddling the Venezuelan Andes, Merida’s primary industry is tourism, which this year has been hurt by electricity cuts. Renate Reiners, manager of travel agency Natoura, said business came to a standstill during the power cuts. Flight reservations are lost and clients’ emails cannot be answered, she said.

“In the hours we can’t work we try to do other things,” she said. “We have to warn our clients it might take longer to respond to them because of the rationing.”